It is a curious
thing to be entranced by such an enigmatic writer as Haruki Murakami. Since the very moment 'A Wild Sheep Chase' was translated into
English in 1989, I still wait each year for a new novel
from him. Sometimes it is a very long wait indeed, two, three years
and then suddenly several come along in the space of a month. Norwegian Wood and Underground were released and a revised version of A Wild Sheep Chase
issued. Murakami suddenly became popular. He still is with later novels such as Kafka on the Shore or Killing Commandatore
interest with this author began on the recommendation of the scholar
John Lewell who spent years putting together an anthology of Japanese
fiction in translation published in Japan and New York back in the late eighties.
would say read so and so it would be different, always interesting
and some of the stories still haunt me, but Murakami was immediately
different. He caught my imagination and soul in much the same
way that Kafka once spoke to me when I was young or in particular
Albert Camus with 'LEtranger' and 'La Peste.'
These were extraordinary
books and I know they deeply affected a generation of people and still
do. Nevertheless, I would read, be amused, be thrilled, be bored, but
nothing again entranced me and placed flesh on my shadow, not until
A Wild Sheep Chase that is.
Here was a rare
tale of an alienated Japanese man lured into a netherworld, a mystical
world where sheep were exotic (they were late in being introduced to
Japan) and the young women were eroticised not by their sexual antics,
but by simply possessing perfect ears, or the most exquisite nose. There
were characters who sole purpose in life was to wait for the main character
to arrive and if he didnt, one felt they would still be waiting
in that strange hotel with a lift that stops between floors. Japan was
transformed from an industrial giant into a quirky, magical, ethereal
place filled with highly erotic characters and others who could not
understand the society they lived in.
I suspect that Murakami found the Japan hard to live in once he found
fame and I remember that between 1991 and 1995 he lived and taught in America,
He does not attempt
to explain Japan. I dont think he writes for us, or them. He writes
about lost souls who find an unsatisfactory salvation or a fragment
of happiness. Somehow, I who appear to be one thing, find myself to
be another, just by reading these books.
The novel Hard-Boiled
Wonderland and the End of the World was at once difficult and
frustrating and yet, years on I have found myself reading it many times
over, always buying it to give to students to read and if pushed to
explain why ...it is simply the most poetic, all embracing, acceptance
of inner despair that could exist on paper. This is the book about death
that makes it seem wonderful, this is a book about life that makes it
absurd and funny at the same time. The wonderful minutiae of a daily
recorded life, the mystical elements of underground tunnels and river
inhabited by the terrifying inklings beneath Tokyo that we know do not
exist, but should. The chubby leading girl who is at once clumsy and
strong and strange and sexual.
where Camus left off. His characters are nihilist, but if pressed choose
life and choose one shrouded in mystery, denial and shunning logical
explanations. Sometimes it is absurd and funny as if we are reading
a Tin-Tin graphic novel, and at other times the spare writing breaks
your heart. The death of a shadow is done so well, the image will not
fade from memory.
Then came 'Dance-Dance-Dance'
and 'The Elephant Vanishes' which didnt quite succeed but when
The Wind-up Bird Chronicles' was finally published all was forgiven.
At first I was disappointed.
I had read the first three or four chapters elsewhere and could not
recall where, but slowly I was drawn in. A young man has lost his cat
and his wife on the same day, but somehow finding the cat seems more
important and the philosophy that drives him is simple yet the most
astonishing of all. There are parallel stories within parallels and
sometimes you are not sure if a character really exists at all. He repeatedly
lies at the bottom of a well and experiences the most erotic hallucinations
that might just be real in an underground room beside the well.
to negotiate with his wife for her return, but his love for her is so
great, he would not have her back if this would make her unhappy. There
are mysterious shadowy people who tell fortunes and pay him to do things
of little consequence. Life is absurd and relationships so fragile and
yet ...there is hope. The erotic moments at the bottom of a deep well
are absurd and strange and deeply affecting. Murakami weaves sex into
the very earth and he is obsessed by tunnels, silent lovemaking, awakward,
tense sex and ultimate longing. His characters are always longing for
someone else, no matter who they are with.
It is stupid of
me to think I could explain these books, because to do so is to negate
them - only to read them do you find inner peace and that peace comes
at a price because it will unsettle you, the mask that real life clasps
to our faces will slip a little and you will never again be comfortable.
Which brings us
to 'South of the Border - West of the Sun' the title of an old Nat King
Cole song. Here we take a left turn. This is not the familiar touch
of Murakami. At first you think he is writing a thinly disguised autobiography
about his love life. The life story in fact from age 12 to 40. Every
partner, real and imagined. But then if at first you frown and think,
this is not going anywhere, it subtly shifts. A boy of 12 Hajime feels
deeply for a girl, Shimamoto, of the same age who had suffered Polio
when young. They share everything, all thoughts and friendship and sexual
but unrealised awakenings. They are parted when they go to different
schools and they do not know why exactly, but they find that both go
through the motions of living a life until one day, Shimamoto walks
back into Hajimes life. By this time he his is married with two
daughters and runs two successful Jazz bars. He has much to lose by
having an affair.
They meet and everything
melts away to the day they were 12 together. Nothing has mattered since
then and nothing will matter again unless they can get together, but
she will tell him nothing of her life or promise him when she will see
Here at last is the exquisite torture of Murakamis novels. We
cannot have what we want without paying the price and what is that price?
How far will you go and how much will you pay. Everything? Your very
May I come
to see you again she asked me softly as she opened the door. You
can still stand being around me?
Ill be waiting, I said.
As I drove away I thought this: If I never see her again, I will go
insane. Once she got out of the car and was gone, my word was suddenly
hollow and meaningless.
And now, just to
make things awkward, Murakamis 1987 best seller Norwegian
Wood. Opening this wonderful gold
box that contains the two paperbacks inside is akin to being given something
special when you are a child. Anticipation is the key to his work and
Norwegian Wood is no exception. Of course, one would have
liked to have read this in 1987 before the others. It is as if one has
begun the Harry Potter books with number three or four. But at once
you are in familiar territory, a little too familiar at first. Isnt
this similar to Wind -up Bird Chronicle? Love and death,
estranged characters, longings and unrequited love, all done in other
books, but one quickly settles in and you are suddenly overwhelmed by
the spare quality of his portraits of young students set against the
turbulent times of 1969.
Yet again, one has the distinct impression of reading the authors
biography (and this is closer to the real story since he was a student
in Tokyo in 1969) but like 'South of the Border,' we get to spend every
waking and sleeping moment with just a few very intense, real, passionate
and dispassionate characters that burnish themselves upon your psyche.
Toru Wantabe and
Naoko are sweet, confused, very confused young people looking to make
sense of their lives. Toru lives in residence at the University in a
very political environment and he is poor. He is an able student, but
unambitious and unfocused, cynical of others political beliefs.
Naoko is his only friend and the ex-girlfriend of his best friend, who
killed himself at 17. Naoko is burdened with guilt that she lived on
and on a path to self-destruction, perhaps oblivious to the growing
love that Toru has to offer.
Alienation is key
to Murakamis books and from them one comes to understand Japan
a little better. Externally we see a nation conforming in dress and
looks and attitudes. We see pictures of teens girls with crazes, buying
millions of copies of one object or another. There appears to us to
be a national will to conform and that is why Murakamis characters
seem to be so strange and yet so popular with the Japanese. They are
about people who cannot fit in, or make sense of the society they live
in. They struggle to obey the rules and reject normal life, even when
claiming to be ordinary. Norwegian Wood is a cry from the
heart. Relationships are either extremely casual or destructively intense.
There are mysterious places, always remote and hard to get to and the
ordinary is always extraordinary. I am not sure whether Japan does have
the remote areas that Murakami describes but one can understand that
readers would like to believe it has.
is the most important asset of mine, so I didn't spoil my imagination
by going there."
interviewed in Salon.com
As you progress
with the non-relationship between Toru and Naoko and the growing one
with Midori, one cannot help being alarmed that this is invention, it
is so real, often so painful and yet tender and loving. You cannot peel
characters like this off your mind so easily. Do you know them, did
they know you? His characters seep into your own memories and dreams.
Once again one recalls Camus. One is sat on a chair beside a dead mother
in 'LEtranger' and yet this is not an exercise in nihilism,but
life affirming. Even the senseless waste of Naoko as she hides away
from reality yet still needs Toru to write to her, love her, want her.
These are people with extreme passions and self-will. Even secondary
characters stake out their pages with authority, no single person is
a whim or an afterthought, but is strategically placed to cause or reflect
or enhance and one can only say that the experience of reading about
nights in the wooden hut in the snow with the guitar being played by
the amazing Reiko, Naokos roommate; it is so intense and erotic,
the pages are electrically charged.
Sex and death worry these young people a great deal. Midori is a strange,
almost contemporary feisty character. A college girl attracted to the
strangeness of Toru Wantabe. She is a college girl, sharing one class
with Toru. Her family own a comic bookshop, but her father is fatally
ill, the mother having already died of cancer. She is obsessed with
dying like her parents, yet of course smokes. She is demanding and strange,
yet always vivid and alive:
Midori put a
Marlboro between her lips and lit it.
Thats the kind of death that frightens me. The shadow of
death slowly eats away at the region of life and before you know it,
everything's dark and you cant see and the people around you think
of you as more dead than alive. I hate that.
Death and the separation
of body and soul and mind and matter concern his characters a great
deal. Hard Boiled Wonderland at the End of the World delt
with the theft of a mans shadow and the onset of brain death,
yet was curious one of the most uplifting books one could read about
Norwegian Wood is fantastic, in its true sense, an exotic fish
in a dark sea. To read him is to open a door in your soul. You do not
have to be Japanese, or even desire to go there, contemporary Japan
comes to you and become one.
Toru is in the process of becoming human and for that he must experience
pain and discipline. Sex is never far away, yet seemingly unattainable
with the women who love him. It is like exquisite torture and it tears
him apart. To be twenty, this was always so. Life is at once frivolous,
full of long nights with long intense conversations about life and death
solutions and everything is either wonderful or beyond hope. Hearts
are being worn down to hard little diamonds so you can face the rest
of life. Its those who soften who seem to die.
if you knew me better, youd force stuff on me like everyone else?
Its possible, I said. Thats how people
live in the real world: forcing stuff on each other.
You wouldnt do that. I can tell. Im an expert when
it comes to forcing stuff and having stuff forced on you. Youre
not the type. Thats why I can relax with you. Do you have any
idea how many people there are in the world who like to force stuff
on people and have stuff forced on them? Tons. And then they make a
big fuss, like I forced her. You forced me! Thats
what they like. Bit I dont like it. I just do it because I have
What kind of stuff do you force on people, or they force on you?
Midori put an ice-cube in her mouth and sucked on it a while.
Do you want to get to know me better? she asked.
Yeah, kind of.
Watch the trailer for the 2010 film here.
© Sam North
author of Magenta - 'Life begins somewhere between the fish and the stars' - A kindle Download